Prior to 2013, one of the ways in which the Voting Rights Act guarded against discriminatory voting laws and procedures was to require certain state and local governments to obtain prior approval (“preclearance”) from the Justice Department or a federal court before changing their election rules.
Shelby County, Alabama, challenged the section of the Voting Rights Act that specifies which parts of the country are covered by the preclearance requirement. The ACLU and the NAACP represented several individuals and organizations that intervened as defendants to defend the law, but in 2013 the Supreme Court ruled that the coverage formula was no longer justified by current facts, and the preclearance requirement could no longer be applied anywhere in the country.
On remand, Shelby County filed a motion seeking more than $2 million in attorneys’ fees and expenses against the United States and against the private parties, including the ACLU’s clients, that had intervened to defend the law. In May 2014, the district court denied the fees motion, explaining that “Congress intended attorney’s fees [under the Voting Rights Act] to be awarded only in circumstances consistent with the statute’s purpose ... to encourage private attorneys general to bring lawsuits vindicating individual voting rights,” while Shelby County “was openly hostile to Congress’s policy choices, attacking them as unconstitutional.”
Shelby County appealed, and in September 2015 the court of appeals agreed that Shelby County was not entitled to receive fees because “[a] party is entitled to fees only when it shows that its success in litigation advanced the goals Congress intended the relevant fee-shifting provision to promote,” and Shelby County’s “victory did not advance [those] goals.” Shelby County filed a petition for Supreme Court review, which was denied in January 2016.